Back to list

Michael Rakowitz: Acts of Protest, Acts of Care

June 18, 2020

Header image: Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen (2007) — Enemy Kitchen is a multipart project built around the Baghdadi recipes Rakowitz compiled with the help of his Iraqi-Jewish mother, then taught to different audiences; this is the artist’s family. Project commissioned by More Art. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“I saw that as being this moment of defiance — a way of making a ghost that nobody ever wanted to see appear and haunt.”

How can we care for one another — our families, our neighbors, our fellow citizens — in the face of uncertainty, tragedy, and hardship, be it unprecedented or all-too-familiar? Can we recognize and re-write what artist Michael Rakowitz might call these “narratives of dispossession and dehumanization and isolation”?

For Enemy Kitchen, produced with More Art in 2007, Rakowitz, with the help of his Iraqi-Jewish mother, compiled Baghdadi recipes to teach to different public audiences; in this case, middle and high school students. Iraqi culture is virtually invisible in the US beyond the nightly news (and even there, defined by war and oil), and the project seized upon the possibility of cultural visibility to produce an alternative discourse. “Preparing and then consuming this food opens up a new route through which Iraq can be discussed,” Rakowitz wrote. “In this case, through that most familiar of cultural staples: nourishment.”

In this excerpted interview from More Art in the Public Eye (conducted in the fall of 2017), Rakowitz discusses the role defiance and empathy play in his work — a dynamic that is put to use in speaking back against dominant narratives, in making the invisible visible, and in both declaring and confounding identity. He begins by citing his early project paraSITE: ongoing since 1998, it consists of custom-built inflatable shelters designed for houseless people that attach to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system; the warm air leaving the building simultaneously inflates and heats the structure.

When I began paraSITE, it came out of identifying something that could be called protest architecture, defiant architecture, or oppositional architecture. I worked very closely at graduate school with Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is really the forefather of so many of these projects that fall under this rubric of socially engaged and activist, interventionist practices. When I was at MIT, I had been thinking a lot about the notion of homelessness and the wider application of that term, as somebody who grew up in an Arab-Jewish household with this experience of exile front and center. Right before I went to Jordan to participate in the residency which would ultimately seed paraSITE, I found a book about Palestinian refugee camps that showed a family using recycled materials to more or less replicate the facade of the house that they had once lived in, which had been bulldozed by the Israelis as a kind of a punishment. I saw that as being this moment of defiance — a way of making a ghost that nobody ever wanted to see appear and haunt. I started to think about that very much in the realm of what eventually became paraSITE and having homeless people become more visible than invisible. As an American who grew up in New York and around the city, [I saw] that these narratives of dispossession and dehumanization and isolation can be found right here as well.


Michael Rakowitz, paraSITE shelters. Left to right: Bill S.’s paraSITE shelter — he requested as many windows as possible, because “homeless people don’t have privacy issues, but they do have security issues”; Michael M. using his paraSITE shelter on 26th Street and 9th Avenue in New York — he wanted to respond to an obscure anti-tent by-law being enforced by the Giuliani administration and so designed his shelter to be closer to the ground, more like a sleeping bag or some kind of body extension; design sketch. Images courtesy of the artist’s website.


There’s a not so invisible line that connects the experience of somebody who is an economic or social refugee in the United States with one who has been made stateless in the Middle East. I think that you can see in Enemy Kitchen that I was really trying to figure out ways to once again work with these concepts and these inspirations, which came out of my family’s experience, from a devotion to Arab-Jewish identity, and also to show dispossession as something that could happen here. I felt like creating a moment of defiance was most needed here. It wasn’t possible to push back against the US military through anything more than a protest. But what I could do was [consider] something that my mother had pointed out, when the first war with Iraq began in 1991, which was that there were no Iraqi restaurants in New York. That comment really opened up an amazing set of thoughts and connections that I was fascinated by. Like, you can’t walk for too long in Paris before you come across a North African market or a Moroccan restaurant, and that has so much to do with this cultural puncture that’s created as a result of war. And shouldn’t it be the ghosts that appear in the United States then, [shouldn’t it be] that Iraqi restaurants start to pop up as a result of that?

I started this project, in 2003, with my mother, by telling her that I remembered what she had said about the lack of Iraqi restaurants, but also with this understanding of something I had seen in late September 2001. After they started letting people back into the lower part of Manhattan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, there was a line of people at St. Marks Place that went around the corner several times, of hundreds of people lining up to eat at a restaurant called Khyber Pass, which is an Afghani restaurant. I thought it was so beautiful — this was all they could think to do. It was a way of protesting, a way of broadcasting their support and their love for the family that owned the restaurant, and also it was like this communion, this taking in of the food of the “enemy.” I started to really think about ways to work with those things that my mother and her mother gave our family, which was the transmission of these recipes. Some of them were specific to the Jewish community but you’ll find that most of them are about Iraq in general; it just points out that there was no real difference between those communities until nationalism became part of the conversation. And so, to answer the question, that’s where defiance comes in.


Enemy Kitchen functioned as a social sculpture; while cooking and eating, the students engaged each other on the topic of the war and drew parallels to their own lives, at times making comparisons in relation to how they perceived the conflict. From Rakowitz: “After eight weekly sessions learning how to cook Iraqi food, the students proposed they teach me something about their families’ recipes, since they now knew so much about mine. Hyasheem asked, ‘Do Iraqis make Southern fried chicken?’ I answered that no, to my knowledge there was nothing like it in Iraqi cuisine. ‘Well, then let’s invent it,’ he said. Hyasheem led the way and we cooked the chicken according to his specifications.”


I think there’s something that happens with a protest, where it can be a really cathartic moment where people can express anger and outrage, but I was always interested in bringing people in. I’m somebody who was reared on site-specific art, on installation art, so I’m always thinking about how to create modes of utterance and space. And so I thought about the smell I would come home to every day after school, of cumin, of Iraqi spices, and knowing that I was safe, that was home. I wanted people to feel that same way, but I also wanted it to be strange; I wanted them to understand that this was the way that my grandparents recreated Iraq, through smell, through taste, and also through care. The chef Alice Waters recently told me that her concept of beauty is care, care is beauty. I thought that was such a beautiful way of resurrecting this term that can be so problematic for artists, of what beauty is. I just really wanted to create those spaces that felt like there was care, because it makes the antagonisms so much easier to navigate. That’s where the empathy comes in, it’s the creation of those spaces.

There’s room for lots of different kinds of work in the public sphere — it doesn’t always have to be defiant, there can be moments that are just about wonder. But one of the things that I was very inspired by was when Wodiczko used to talk about the way that monuments no longer spoke to their public. How does a monument get rescued from just being decoration, how do we keep it from being appropriated by the city? That was one of the things he wrote about with his projections — the projector had to be turned off at a certain point so that the image did not become appropriated by the building for decoration.¹ That’s when I started to understand there are moments where we do need to act with defiance. I think that that was an important way to find, not simply an antagonistic voice, but a voice that was complicated.

For me, I think those moments of defiance are sometimes already written into the project — into any public art project, I should say — because there are plenty of people out there, in the government and in our world, who would love for artists to not be able to do what they do. Just doing it is an act of defiance. We live in this hyper-capitalistic situation and this notion of what is useful is something that really needs to be also pushed against. There needs to be room for things to be useless and to not be so co-opted by functionality and by the market.


Left to right: Krzysztof Wodickzo, Sans Papiers at the Kunstmuseum Basel (2006); projection at the San Diego Museum of Man (1988); Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection (2012 ) in Manhattan’s Union Square Park, commissioned by More Art.

  1. Since 1980, Wodickzo has created more than seventy large-scale slide and video projections of politically charged images on architectural façades and monuments worldwide, focusing attention on the ways in which architecture and monuments reflect collective memory and history. In 1996, he added sound and motion to the projections, and began to collaborate with communities — often those marginalized in public life — around chosen projection sites, projecting images of community members’ hands, faces, or entire bodies onto architectural façades, and combining those images with voiced testimonies.


In later manifestations, Enemy Kitchen has taken shape as a food truck. For this, Rakowitz employs US veterans, many of whom are involved with Iraq Veterans Against The War, as sous-chefs, line cooks, and window attendants, serving the public Iraqi specialties cooked by local Iraqi chefs. Pictured here are Enemy Kitchen staff, comprised of Iraqi refugees and American veterans of the Iraq War, outside of Milo’s Pita Place, an Iraqi restaurant in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood that operates the truck. Most Iraqi restaurants in the city call themselves Middle Eastern or Mediterranean to protect themselves from jingoistic attacks; Enemy Kitchen is the city’s first Iraqi restaurant to publicly declare itself as such. Image via the artist’s website.

This interview excerpt is from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.